Editorials 27.10.2016 10:19 am

About calling Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma ‘Zuma’s ex’

African Union Commission chairperson Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Photo: Gallo Images

African Union Commission chairperson Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Photo: Gallo Images

It was a mistake, and it won’t happen again.

Tuesday’s Citizen ran what now appears to be the rather infamous headline “Zuma’s ex ready to lead”, which we also ran online as “Zuma’s ex appears ready to lead SA”.

I remember casting my eye over the headline “Zuma’s ex ready to lead” the night before it was published after a long day on Monday, and barely pausing for thought. I was in standard fact-checking and spell-checking mode, and my insensitive brain just went “yes, the fact that she’s Zuma’s ex-wife is accurate”. I then added the word ‘appears’, because nowhere in the story did it explicitly say Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had clearly declared her ambitions to be the next president.

Of course it seems reasonable enough to infer that she’s not only open to the idea of being the next president, but I for one would be extremely surprised if she doesn’t throw her hat into the ring come the ANC elective conference at the end of next year. Typical coy politician though, she’s kept people guessing, offering only quotes that allow her and her backers to test the political waters and the public mood while always allowing her to later say: “But I never said I’d be running for president” if she does in fact decide she’d rather not mount a challenge against the frontrunner, Cyril Ramaphosa.

All this talk about South Africa needing a female president, though, is understood to mean Dlamini-Zuma, and the more cynical among us naturally ask the question of whether that has all that much to do with her being a woman or that she is unlikely to challenge the status quo she will inherit from Zuma too much.

Most pressingly for Zuma, of course, is the matter of whether he may ever see the inside of a courtroom, not to mention a jail cell, for those 783 charges of corruption.

With news this week that he was definitely “implicated” in Thuli Madonsela’s “state capture” report, the president is probably not about to start playing around with who might succeed him. And it’s unlikely that a woman with whom he has two children is going to send the father of those children to jail.

So, yes, Dlamini-Zuma is a very accomplished woman with a glittering career, but to think that she can somehow not be seen through the association with Zuma is naive. The fact that they were married and have a history is relevant, and becomes all the more relevant the closer she may get to swapping places with him at the presidential residence, Mahlamba Ndlopfu.

But does that excuse the fact that we ran a headline calling her “Zuma’s ex”? No. Of course not. The headline was thoughtlessly sexist and very hard to defend, and I’m not about to even start doing that. I don’t see every story that goes on this website before the publish button gets pushed, but I saw this one and let it slide.

Imagine if every time we read about Hillary Clinton and her bid for the White House, the headlines screamed: “Bill Clinton’s wife leads in polls against Donald Trump”. That’s awful, just as our headline was pretty awful.

When I got to work the next day and it was pointed out to me, I realised the blunder immediately and just hoped no one would notice. But everybody noticed (obviously).

Having spoken to my colleagues in the printed paper, the story is much the same. It was a straightforward error, which is the kind of thing that happens in the hurly-burly of meeting deadlines and trying to stand out from the competitors. It wasn’t thought through carefully and there are better ways of trying to stimulate debate on whether we really want to create a Zuma dynasty in this country.

Personally, I’d rather watch reruns of Batman & Robin every day for the next 10 years than face another decade of Zumanomics. But even that attitude of mine is little more than prejudice towards Dlamini-Zuma, who in all fairness needs to be judged as an individual and given a chance to be seen for her own qualities. At least one thing that can be said in her favour is that she was in a relationship with Zuma and managed to get out of it. Maybe she’s exactly the right person to help us as a country get out of a similarly toxic relationship with the same man.

I’m glad to say I’m not just speaking for myself when I say I’m sorry this website and the paper ran that headline. The whole Citizen feels the same way and is sorry about it. No one has asked for us to apologise, but it’s only right that we do so.

We updated the headline online yesterday morning to one that is entirely objective and neutral, and what it should have been in the first place. Ironically, of course, that would have meant very few people would have read the story – but that’s not always a bad thing.

All of us are probably somebody’s ex, but it’s doubtful any of us would want to be known as that for the rest of our lives. So yes, to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and all the other exes out there: sorry. We won’t be calling her that on this website or in the paper again.

Charles Cilliers, Citizen.co.za digital editor

Charles Cilliers, Citizen.co.za digital editor

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